Kick-start for Rackers?

11-12-01, 2:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. _ They didn't even know if Neil Rackers would be around next week to kick against Tennessee. Now, not only will Rackers be at Paul Brown Stadium, but he figures the coaches won't be in such a hurry to go for it on fourth down any more.

Not after Rackers' career-long 52-yarder jolted the Bengals into the short-lived 13-7 half-time lead Sunday here at ALLTEL Stadium.

"I don't know if it's as much for me as it is now the coaches have a little more confidence in putting me out there in those situations," Rackers said after a 2-for-2 day.

Rackers didn't have a great bye week. In fact, it looked like the Bengals were getting ready to say, "good-bye," when they signed former Giants kicker Jaret Holmes to the practice squad after Rackers had missed seven of his last 11 field-goal tries as head coach Dick LeBeau often eschewed anything near 50 yards.

But Rackers has kept a stiff upper lip, saying only that he thrives on competition. That's hard to dispute after the Bengals' longest field goal since Doug Pelfrey beat Philadelphia on the last play of the 1994 season with a 54-yarder.

But typical of Rackers' struggles, it wasn't easy and only came about

after an odd series of officiating. Rackers was looking at a 55-yarder with two seconds left in the half when a false start pushed them back and brought the offense back on the field for a Hail Mary or kneeldown.

But after the false start, the officials reviewed the previous play, a three-yard completion to wide receiver Ron Dugans that had been ruled out of bounds. But the play was reversed, so Rackers came back on and made good.

"It was nice to go over and kick a few warmups," said Rackers, who made good use of his time. "It's nice to go out and bury one of those. The snap, everything on that was in rhythm. The first one wasn't really in rhythm. I saw the ball for a half second, if that, before I kicked it."

But Rackers calmly made the 26-yarder, which closed the Jags' gap to 7-3, when holder Neil Harris scooped up snapper Brad St. Louis' low pass. Asked if he thinks he'll get more 50-yard chances, he shrugged.

"We've had a stiff wind against us. The (Jacksonville) weather is a little different. We've got more of a crosswind at our place. Here it's kind of here or there. Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I think I'll (get more long chances).

"Just going out there and forgetting about everything and getting everything together, that was the biggest positive that came out of it."

**

O'DWYER DOWN:** Coming into Sunday's game, the Bengals were just one of six NFL teams that had played the entire season with their offensive line intact. That changed early in the second quarter when LG Matt O'Dwyer went down with a sprained medial collateral knee ligament and was replaced by Scott Rehberg.

O'Dwyer is confident there is no ACL tear, but he underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) Sunday night when the club arrived back at Paul Brown Stadium. He could be back as soon as the game in Cleveland in two weeks, but early estimates are he'll be out two to four weeks. . .

All other Sunday nicks are probable: OLB Takeo Spikes (groin), OLB Adrian Ross (shoulder).

YOUNG GUNS: When Darnay Scott went out with a concussion early in the first quarter and with Chad Johnson missing his third straight game with a broken clavicle, receivers coach Steve Mooshagian knew what the critics were getting ready to say.

"They can say we played today without our two fastest receivers and still proved we could get the job done," Mooshagian said. "That was a positive. We ran by them, we were open."

Scott is probable to return for Tennessee next week and Johnson has been upgraded to questionable, but the Bengals liked what they saw from their other kids in their first 300-yard passing day in nearly two years. Since Dec. 5, 1999.

Rookie T.J. Houshmandzadeh and second-year man Danny Farmer made their first catches of the season. Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick, led the team with six catches for 62 yards. Farmer had three catches for 45 yards and each converted a third down on the Bengals' lone touchdown drive.

In fact, Houshmandzadeh's first catch came on a third-and-four, which

got seven yards on an out pattern.

"I wasn't even thinking about that being my first catch," he said. "I just wanted to get to the first-down marker. But now that you ask, I'll find out if (someone kept the ball for him).

"It's just fun playing like that again," Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't think I did anything special. I know I had one drop. The middle and underneath was open."

Peter Warrick had five more catches (which included a 32-yarder) to remain on pace to have the first 80-catch season since Carl Pickens in 1998.

Scott said he got blurred vision after making a crack-back block on a linebacker. "I won't do that anymore," he said of leading with his head. He tried to return twice, but it wasn't good.

"These guys played well. They stepped up," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "No matter whether we win the rest of our games this year or lose the rest of them this year, I just hope this team sticks together offensively because we've got some serious potential at receiver. If we can stick together, I really think the next year, the sky is the limit. Look at the (offenses) that have done that. Stuck together. Jacksonville being one. Indy being another. Teams that have stuck with their guys. St. Louis. Then you get on the same page, you can really start rolling."

It wasn't all rosy. A working press box figure had Bengals' receivers with six to seven drops. Tight end Tony McGee, who dropped the first play of the game, was marked down for four drops. But the last one, which came n the end zone with 33 seconds left in the game, came after a tussle with safety Donovin Darius.

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